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Poetry Trifecta

Evie Shockley, a half-red sea (Carolina Wren Press, 2006)
Purvi Shah, Terrain Tracks (New Rivers Press, 2006)
John DeLaurentis, The Worthy Pursuit: Poems of Body, Soul, and Spirit (PublishAmerica, 2005)

Reviewed by Harriet Davidson

New Brunswick is a good poetry town, with a thriving scene of poetry-mad students who may linger for years traversing the fertile writing corridor between New York and Philadelphia. The vital poetry culture of the English department, with its history of wonderful poets and poetry, suffered a loss when Alicia Ostriker retired two years ago. But her legacy endures in the proliferation of poetry coming out of Rutgers English, which this past year hit the trifecta, with the publication of books by Professor Evie Shockley, by graduate alumna Purvi Shah, and by undergraduate alumnus John DeLaurentis.

Evie Shockley’s a half-red sea establishes her as a major poet in the tradition of African American formal innovation driven by the pressure of history, from Gwendolyn Brooks and Amiri Baraka, to Nathaniel Mackey and Harryette Mullen. The title of the book comes from “elocation (or, exit us).” This poem brilliantly shows the serious play of Shockley’s work, a rich layering of the mutability of language and life with the “inerasable trace” of historical trauma. An obsolete word, “elocation” means removal from a person’s control or, in a figurative sense, alienation of mind. Shockley’s always punning work leads us to see the word “elocution” hovering around the unfamiliar “elocation,” and the hint of “e-location” suggesting the complications of virtual worlds among our physical and figural locations. In this poem the terrain of America is mapped by slavery and racism, a map figured in Moses’ escape from the slavery of Egypt. In rhyming quatrains this poem figures the psychic wound splitting America, as “exit us” puns on her need for escape by “us” from the U.S. But a better place seems “always just” inaccessible:

where? egypt’s always on her right (it goes

where she goes), canaan’s always just a-head,
and to her left, land of the bloodless dead.

The exuberance and vitality of Shockley’s poems sit uneasily with this pessimistic vision, as in the experimental fold-out poem “a thousand words” that frames a page with the repeated word torture and fills up this frame with a powerful list of words and phrases that leave readers shaken and astonished. But Shockley’s poems also lead us into lyric moments of love and connection as she traverses the passages of life and of African American history and culture. Writing to and of Gwendolyn Brooks, Phyllis Wheatley, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and Ntozake Shange, Shockley lets jazz rhythms inhabit her form. Voices from spirituals and popular culture rise and fade in her verse; words and images resonate, mutating into synonyms and homonyms, and into rhymes and figures.

Purvi Shah’s Terrain Tracks explores journeys through space and time in beautifully sensuous lyrics charting the dislocations and locations of immigration, memory, love, and loss. The memorable title of her opening poem—“When dreams shower one part of the body, when reality claims the other”—describes this condition. Shah’s poems interweave India and New York, tracing the tastes and fragrances of cultural memories, conjuring the feel of New York in its everyday restless movement, tracking women’s lives from family, to work, to love, to transformation. She captures the forces of desire: for the lover traveling away or toward her, for “the sporadic seizures of spectral delight,” for the subway home, standing “so flush to the track’s edge/that we can taste warm bread.” Her vivid images keep the reader near the concrete, making the abstract palpable: “Does the body reside with the imagination/or is it attached to land by limb and joints,” she asks. The imagination and the body’s touch share the same terrain in these moving poems.

John DeLaurentis takes a different kind of journey in The Worthy Pursuit, moving from bodily and secular love to a spiritual quest. The figure of Odysseus moves through these poems, representing the journey home that DeLaurentis fully appreciates. With his “pen turned towards the holy expanse,” he extends his quest beyond the secular. His poems celebrate language—“A life full of lust is not lasciviousness,/But a lingering lovely lucid alacrity/for the lexicon of light”—and decry the soul-killing pressures of modernity. But his passion is for the spiritual: “there is mystery crafted by divine hands/molding forth creation and the soul’s salvation.” These inspirational poems compel readers by the sincerity of their faith and desire.

These books manifest the wide range of form and content in the poetry world today. Perhaps Ostriker can give us a final word on these intricate and competing visions of poetry, of life. In the final poem of her latest book of poetry, No Heaven, Ostriker tracks the tragedy and comedy “when we think about the world,” the “complicated view” from above or at street level. Her lucid and passionate poetry has always guided my reading of the world, and of poetry. She concludes, “Lucky us.”

© 2007 Future Traditions Magazine
A Publication for Alumni and Friends of Rutgers English
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Department of English | Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.